Tuesday, December 02, 2003

"SHOULD CHEESEBURGERS BE KOSHER?" asks Jack M. Sasson in the December issue of Bible Review. He answers no, but he still thinks that those biblical passages about seething a kid in its mother's milk may have been misunderstood. The, uh, meat of his argument is as follows:

Since bissel can mean �cook,� and hlv can refer to �fat,� and the Israelites were apparently permitted to eat fat as long as it did not come from a sacrificial offering, I propose translating our prohibition: �You may not cook a kid in its mother�s fat.� If so, we would be dealing not with an arcane or enigmatic dietary injunction, but with a wise counsel, an aphorism, instructing a farming community not to squander the bounties that God has given Israel. For, to cook an animal in its mother�s fat would require the slaughter of both the mother and the young. The imprudent killing of the producer and the produced on the same occasion would lead to a serious reduction in stock, with potentially disastrous results.

The same kind of prudent advice is found in Deuteronomy 22:6-7: �Should you chance upon a bird�s nest before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground, as hatchlings or as eggs, with the mother sitting by the hatchlings or on the eggs, do not take the mother along with the young. Shoo away the mother and take the young, so that you may prosper and live long.� As in our prohibition, banning the killing of the mother bird allows the mother to produce more eggs to chance upon later.


Within a couple of centuries after the Hellenistic period, the interdiction against cooking a kid in milk itself developed from a quaint, narrowly interpreted practice to one with a sweeping application against mixing milk and meat. In passages of the Talmud, the injunction inspired a major segment of Jewish traditional practice of kashruth, or kosher laws. In turn, as it has been persuasively argued, this attachment to a remarkable interpretation of dietary rules and regulations became a bulwark for Jewish survival. Adopting them, observant Jews found it necessary to avoid intimacy with populations that obeyed no religious rules concerning the eating of meat, preserving their distinctiveness as a community in faith and practice.

I have sought to explain the original meaning of a law that remains enigmatic to scholarship. Yet this explanation should prove irrelevant to how traditional Jews today display their attachment to their faith. Traditional Judaism owes its rules of practical life to biblical laws as interpreted by the Jewish sages. This means that lasagna and cheeseburgers must still not be served at their tables.

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